The two Sydney suburbs redefining cool

Find out if you are more a Redfern or Surry Hills kind of traveller

2 glasses of clear drink with cherry inside
  • James Cottam
  • December 2016

Once upon a time, Surry Hills and Redfern were two of the cheapest places to live in Sydney. But over the past decades, both suburbs have been gentrified and redefined. New designer apartment buildings have risen among traditional terraces, and uninhabitable houses in either suburb will now set you back well over a million dollars. New blood has brought life and custom to the area. Both suburbs still have a strong sense of community but it’s a community that is expanding.

Surry Hills’ main streets – Crown, Bourke and Foveaux – are filled with swanky restaurants and wine bars, along with clothes designers and artisanal bakeries.

Redfern is the newest dining and drinking destination in Sydney. New businesses are still moving in and jostling for their spot on the couch, but residents are really excited to be there. Retro and designer homewares stores line Regent Street, rubbing shoulders with old-school local traders.

We spoke to local businesses in both suburbs and asked them what they love about their location. Surry Hills is established, slick and high-end. Redfern is cooler, younger and more down to earth. Some even say whatever Surry Hills can do, Redfern can do better. But both suburbs are well worth your time on your next Sydney trip.

Coolest restaurant

Surry Hills: Porteño

Ben Milgate and Elvis Abrahanowicz opened their first Surry Hills restaurant in 2006 when the Hills were still somewhat down at heel. Five years ago they opened their second, Porteño, in a huge old reception venue on Cleveland Street. The food is prepared Argentinian style – fire-cooked meat, including the famous, crispy, whole lamb and pig. The ambience is also straight from South America. Weeks were markets, sourcing tiles markets, sourcing tiles and buying furniture in Argentina. Head to Gardel’s Bar upstairs for a drink and graze the bar menu.

“When we opened our first place in Surry Hills there was nothing nearby but a ‘house of ill repute’. It was dodgy and gritty and we loved that. It’s more up-market now, but still keeps its edge.” – Ben Milgate

358 Cleveland Street, Surry Hills, +61 (0)2 8399 1440, opens in new window

Redfern: The Eathouse Diner

When Selena Murray, Adrian “Age” Durrant and Lenna Boord set up The Eathouse Diner in 2010, their shop had been vacant for several years. The well-travelled trio decided Redfern needed a US-style diner with Australian comfort food – albeit with a hint of the South. It worked; the influx came quickly, with locals dining in and new businesses moving into the area. The food is simple, delicious and the bar is well stocked. You can just drop into the ’50s-style bar for a Señorita – a chilli-infused tequila and Cointreau cocktail mixed with grapefruit and lime juice. Look for the big ‘EAT HERE’ sign on Chalmers Street.

“Redfern is fantastic. It’s such a mix – oldies, the young, families, everyone. The biggest change was suddenly having people come in from everywhere rather than just our locals.” – Age Durrant

306 Chalmers Street, Redfern, +61 (0)2 8084 9479, opens in new window

Coolest small bar

Surry Hills: Mille Vini

If you are looking for a vintage drop of wine, it’s hard to pass by Mille Vini on Crown St, in the heart of the Surry Hills precinct. The eight-year-old wine bar is Italian in its inspiration but has been given a stylish, contemporary twist by its owner, Rhaad Fogarty. The candle-lit venue is slick, intimate and casual – drawing in a strong crowd of locals, regulars and all-comers on the busy weekends. There is almost too much to choose from with about 14 different wines available by the glass and a range of 70 in the bottle to select from.

“What do I love about Surry Hills? There is always something happening.” – Rhaad Fogarty

397 Crown St, Surry Hills, +61 (0)2 9357 3366, opens in new window

Redfern: The Dock

If Surry Hills is all about wine bars, then Redfern is all about funky small bars. In 2011, The Dock opened – one of the first cool bars in the area. Close to the corner of Regent and Redfern Streets, it’s what you want in a bar – small and cozy. Fairy lights contribute to the mood and everything has a rough-hewn and relaxed feel to it. The bartenders love to have a chat and will draw enough out of you to recommend a fabulous drink. On the other hand, if you just want a brew, they will readily serve you a pint from a rotating roster of craft beers.

“Redfern is a community with amazing character. It’s a celebration of cultural and social diversity. The influx of a broader demographic has thrown everyone together, wealthy, poor, young and old. You never know who’s going to come in; it’s a total grab bag. There’s a place for everyone and that’s what we have always loved about it.” – Dan O’Leary

182 Redfern Street, Redfern, 0405 757 458, opens in new window

Coolest pub

Surry Hills: Hotel Harry

There has been a pub on the corner of Wentworth Avenue and Goulburn Street since 1912, but former regular patrons would barely recognise it after its 2014 makeover. It still feels big and pub-like with high ceilings and the original pub tiles peeking out here and there.

However the vibe is Latin and Cuban and the “Bar Publico” is stocked with some of the finest wines South America has to offer. There is fine dining upstairs and BBQ and bar food downstairs. Harry’s is a friendly and colourful place, great for large groups and in summer, is going to be tremendous!

“I love the diversity; Surry Hills feels like a hub for arts and culture. I also love the new burst of gentrification and the rebirth of the abandoned end of Surry Hills. It’s new folk this time, not age or money bracketed, but kore of an attitude bracket. It’s all very positive vibes at the moment.” – Kiri Hance, Manager

40–44 Wentworth Avenue, Surry Hills, +61 (0)2 8262 8800, opens in new window

Redfern: The Bearded Tit

Decked out like a cross between a naughty boudoir and Auntie Mabel’s place, The Bearded Tit is a bar that feels like a pub. Actually, it’s better than all the local pubs put together. There’s an aluminium caravan in the courtyard, live music and art all over the place. It’s considered an art venue as much as a drinking destination. The staff are friendly, interesting and casual whilst providing effortless service. There are always good craft beers on tap and the wine and spirits list is… prodigious.

At the Tit, it’s all about surprise and serendipity – expect the unexpected. We caught an incredible, ear-splitting live performance from a famous local musician who was celebrating her birthday here but would prefer not to be named. True story.

“Redfern is the eye of the storm of ‘our’ Sydney – between the inner west, Surry Hills, the city and Darlinghurst. It has a rich, important history of diversity, Indigenous cultural activity and creative expression. As you enter, we have a sign declaring our love for Redfern and her community.” – Emma Price, co-owner

183 Regent St, Redfern, +61 (0)2 8283 4082, opens in new window

Coolest bakery

Surry Hills: Bourke Street Bakery

Bakers David McGuinness and Paul Allam started Bourke Street Bakery in 2004 when they fell in love with the shop-front window. It became a community staple and if you’re late, all you’ll find is an empty window. The vibe is low fuss and the quick can snaffle a coveted outside table. Grab a coffee and croissant or excellent sandwich. Make sure you take one of the artisanal loaves home. They’re top quality and have led to the Bakery’s seven-store expansion across Sydney.

“We love the suburb, the beautiful streets, day-to-day community feel and how close you are to the city. When you’re in the bakery, it doesn’t feel it’s changed that much, but it has. It’s more gentrified now, no doubt about it, and a real food hub. Surry Hills always had great places to eat but there’s a real concentration now.” –David McGuiness

633 Bourke St, Surry Hills, +61 (0)2 9699 1011, opens in new window

Redfern: Breadfern

Michel Alkobi and Lior Manheim opened the Tapeo Tapas bar on Redfern Street in 2011, eventually adding a gluten-free bakery and ruling their corner. In 2013, Michel sold his share and headed across the road to start his own corner empire. They had a hectic start, opening on Grand Final day, when local NRL rugby league team, the South Sydney Rabbitohs, won – “the craziest day you can imagine!”. Breadfern combines Michel’s Spanish-Moroccan heritage with the skills of Keren Klein, head baker and business partner. They provide five or six styles of bread daily, along with pies and sweet pastries. Grab a coffee and hit the park opposite.

“Redfern is a super colourful, beautiful place. When I first came it seemed like a place you could use creativity and drive to make something new. The biggest change is money – there’s more in the area with more families and more competition. Look! There are coffee shops everywhere!” – Michel Alkobi

308 Chalmers St, Redfern, +61 (0)2 8065 3959, opens in new window